Saturday, April 16, 2016

Nothing: How Do We Speak When We Have No Words? #AtoZChallenge Letter N

During April I'm participating in the A to Z blogging challenge.
Each day, sans Sunday, offers an opportunity to write about a
letter of the alphabet with the goal of writing 26 posts.
April is also National Poetry Month.

At times I have no words to speak. These times occur when I'm frustrated, when I'm in pain, when I'm shocked. As an articulate person, those who know me probably think I'm never speechless, but I am. 

As my AP Lit and Comp students have studied literature this year, one of our favorite topics centers on the failure of language. Modernism, and the way it expresses this failure of language and reimagines the way artists speak, is probably my favorite literary period. 

Modern writers often utilize LITOTES to articulate this loss of language. Litotes uses negatives, often double negatives, as an ironic understatement to express meaning. For example, when we say, "No too bad," we actually mean "pretty good." 

I show students a podcast from The Close Reading Co-operative as an introduction to litotes, and I encourage students in my Communication 1101 to play with litotes in their persuasive speeches. Litotes often offers these students a unique way to define a complicated concept or idea.

Sometimes saying what we don't mean works more effectively than saying what we mean. 

I took the picture above at Yellowstone National Park in the
Lower Geyser Basin. Sadly, tourists sometimes mistake the
crystal blue pools as swimming holes and dismiss warnings
not to swim.

Sometimes something is so awe-inspiring that words fail us.

Sometimes an emotion, an experience creates pain that others misinterpret. I think about the "not said" when watching my students. I think about what I can't find the words to say to those who misinterpret constant consistency as "normal." 

I've been thinking about Stevie Smith's poem "Not Waving but Drowning" for a few weeks. In it the speaker describes a drowning person, someone far from shore whose hands "wave" in the air. Those observing obviously can't hear the swimmer. They mistake the drowning persons flailing arms as waves. 

We all have times when we feel lost at sea, times when we're "not waving, but drowning," times when those on shore watch as we vanish into the horizon. 

Not Waving but DrowningBy Stevie Smith
Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   
(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.


  1. What you don't say in a poem is as important as what you do say, sometimes. I love the word, litotes... ~Liz

  2. I love podcasts, so I'm happy to learn about one I hadn't previously known about. Thanks for that!

    Stormy’s Sidekicks!

    @LGKeltner from
    Writing Off the Edge

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  4. How did I get to a year of graduate school in English without ever hearing of Litotes?
    Barb's Garden Observations
    Paso Robles in Photos